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Abandoned

Abandoned Neverland

Image - Jonathan Haeber, Bearings (license)

A valuable property such as the Neverland Valley Ranch was never likely to be allowed to stand abandoned and decaying for long – particularly now that a profit-motivated firm such as Colony Capital was involved with it. But for a couple of years after Michael Jackson left and most of the staff were dismissed, Neverland did fall into a state of near-abandonment. Sealed off from the outside world, it inevitably became a target for urban explorers, seeking to discover what had become of Michael Jackson’s private theme park.

Abandoned Neverland

The Ferris wheel silhouetted against the night sky. Image - Jonathan Haeber, Bearings (license)

While security were on hand to keep out most curious onlookers, it was always likely that someone would eventually make it over the fence. And indeed they did – in 2008, Scott Haefner, Jonathan Haeber and two unnamed associates managed to capture the park on camera “before it was too late”.

Abandoned Neverland

The welcome tent. Image - Jonathan Haeber, Bearings (license)

Abandoned Neverland

The train tracks remained in place. Image - Jonathan Haeber, Bearings (license)

After hiking across rough terrain for several miles to avoid the main entrance, they made their way onto the property. They found it in a fairly good state of repair, but their photos still evoke a sense of how haunting this empty, quiet playland had become with its owner to bring it to life.

Abandoned Neverland

The Wave Swinger stood silent...Image - Jonathan Haeber, Bearings (license)

Abandoned Neverland

...as did the Sea Dragon. Image - Jonathan Haeber, Bearings (license)

In another, anonymous interview, one member of the group explained the motivation behind the illicit visit: “It was kind of a spur-of-the-moment thing. I was aware that the park had been abandoned for quite a while, and I knew that Jackson was in Dubai at the time and that he wasn’t able to pay his electric bills. So, my understanding was that it would be a short-lived opportunity.”

Abandoned Neverland

Image - Jonathan Haeber, Bearings (license)

Abandoned Neverland

Image - Jonathan Haeber, Bearings (license)

Abandoned Neverland

Image - Jonathan Haeber, Bearings (license)

Abandoned Neverland

Image - Jonathan Haeber, Bearings (license)

Abandoned Neverland

Image - Jonathan Haeber, Bearings (license)

Abandoned Neverland

Image - Jonathan Haeber, Bearings (license)

He continues: “I wasn’t a big fan of Michael Jackson, but I just knew that he was an important American historical figure. At the time, most people probably didn’t realise that he was part of history, and I knew that there was the potential for everything that was associated with him to be quickly lost. Without our documentation, I think it would’ve been a huge loss.”

Abandoned Neverland

The Neverland Zoo station stood empty. Image - Jonathan Haeber, Bearings (license)

Abandoned Neverland

The zoo itself was also abandoned by this stage. Image - Jonathan Haeber, Bearings (license)

Abandoned Neverland

A lonely Peter Pan figure sat outside Katherine Station. Image - Jonathan Haeber, Bearings (license)

Abandoned Neverland

The station itself was still in fairly good condition. Image - Jonathan Haeber, Bearings (license)

Despite the emptiness of the ranch, Haefner was impressed, getting the vibe that Neverland was “a very happy place – an incredible place to kids to visit. I would have loved it.”

Dismantling Neverland

Neverland Samba Balloon

The Neverland Balloon Samba, seen in 2010. Image - Andrea Lee, Flickr (license)

In late 2008, months after the urban explorers captured Neverland on camera, neighbors began to report activity on the property. The rides had begun to be sold, and in 2009 the Balloon Samba, Wave Swinger and Dinosaurs resurfaced as attractions at the California State Fair.

Most of Jackson’s beloved animals had already been removed from the zoo. The tigers, Thriller and Sabu, were sent to the Shambala Preserve, a sanctuary in Acton, near Los Angeles, where they moved into a newly-built lakeside habitat. The owner, former movie star Tippi Hedren, claims that Jackson didn’t contribute a penny to their upkeep.

Many of the reptiles were moved to the GW Exotic Animal Memorial Park in Oklahoma, including a 300lb python that Jackson had named Madonna. Two alligators also moved to the park along with the snakes.

Two of the four giraffes, Rambo and Jabba Jnr., were less fortunate. Having been moved to Banjoko Wildlife Preserve in Page, they died in 2009 amid allegations from PETA that they hadn’t been fed correctly. The owners claimed that the animals had been poisoned. The other two giraffes survived the incident.

The contents of the house were collectively very valuable. In April 2009, Julien’s Auction House prepared to display and auction a huge collection of memorabilia that had been removed from Neverland. Although the exhibition opened as scheduled on April 14, the actual auction was eventually cancelled at the request of Jackson himself. You can see a selection of the items that would have been on offer in the images below:

Neverland auction

The famous Neverland gates welcomed guests to the exhibition. Image - Jose, Flickr (license)

Neverland auction

One of many artworks to depict Jackson in a fantasy pose. Image - Jose, Flickr (license)

Neverland auction

Some of Neverland's many bronze statues. Image - Jose, Flickr (license)

Neverland auction

Image - Jose, Flickr (license)

Neverland auction

Lifesized figures of Jackson featured in the display. Image - Jose, Flickr (license)

Neverland auction

Image - Jose, Flickr (license)

Neverland auction

Image - Jose, Flickr (license)

Neverland auction

Image - Jose, Flickr (license)

Neverland auction

Many of Jackson's beloved arcade games were due to be auctioned off. Image - Jose, Flickr (license)

By early 2009, Colony Capital was working to turn Neverland into a saleable asset. The company spent more than $3 million on landscaping and repairing basic utilities, and planned to bring in a herd of Clydesdales to add a touch of life. It repaired the train station, and aspired to keep some elements of Neverland in place. “You can’t wipe out Neverland entirely,” said project manager Kyle Forsyth. “It’s part of the history of the place.”

Colony hoped to sell the ranch for between $70 million and $90 million, realizing a tidy profit for Jackson in the process. The singer was estimated to be $500 million in debt, but his career was on the verge of a revival after he agreed to a 50-date residency at London’s O2 Arena. This would benefit Neverland, too. “Should Michael Jackson’s career be reaccelerated,” said Colony’s CEO Tom Barrack, “It [the ranch] will have substantial additional value.”

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